Day 18: Seth Godin on education

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Fifty years ago, businesses realized that they were facing two related problems:

They needed more workers, more well-trained, compliant, and yes, cheap workers willing to follow specific instructions, and they needed more customers. More well-trained, pliable, eager-to-consume customers watching TV regularly and waiting to buy what they had to sell.

Dreamers don’t help with either of these problems. Dreamers aren’t busy applying for jobs at minimum wage, they don’t eagerly buy the latest fashions, and they’re a pain in the ass to keep happy.

The solution sounds like it was invented at some secret meeting at the Skull and Bones, but I don’t think it was. Instead, it was the outcome of a hundred little decisions, the uncoordinated work of thousands of corporations and political lobbyists:

School is a factory, and the output of that factory is compliant workers who buy a lot of stuff. These students are trained to dream small dreams.

What about the famous ones we hear about? Surely the successful people we read about have something special going on….

Majora Carter grew up in the 1960s in the South Bronx. She wasn’t supposed to have dreams; neither were her classmates. The economic impediments were too big; there wasn’t enough money to spend on schools, on support, on teachers who cared.

And yet Majora grew up to be, according to > Fast Company> , one of the hundred most creative people in business, a TED speaker, a community activist, and a successful consultant. Her fellow students are still waiting to get the call.

Dreamers don’t have special genes. They find circumstances that amplify their dreams. If the mass-processing of students we call school were good at creating the dreamers we revere, there’d be far more of them. In fact, many of the famous ones, the successful ones, and the essential ones are part of our economy despite the processing they received, not because of it.

The economy demands that we pick ourselves. School teaches us otherwise.

I’m arguing for a new set of fairy tales, a new expectation of powerful dreaming. 1 Seth Godin has delivered two bracing critiques of American education. One was a TED event speech 2 that can be found on YouTube and heard on his superb podcast, Akimbo. 3 The other is a long manifesto 4 that has been posted to Medium. Without reservation, I recommend the TED presentation. You will need to bring a deep interest in schooling to the manifesto, but if you have that deep interest, dig in. You will not be sorry.

A core belief of Godin's is that mass public education was designed to deliver compliant, obedient workers to the industrial economy. The global economy is in the first throes of a massive, epochal change, and schools are nowhere near ready to handle it.

After 26 years in higher education at an elite university, I think college has been plowing the same furrow. I will have more to say about that, and about tragic human propensity for obedience, at later dates.


1 Stop Stealing Dreams: What Is School For?, by Seth Godin. An ebook reprinted in full on Medium.

2 Godin's presentation to TEDxYouth.

3 The podcast Akimbo.

4 The manifesto on Medium.